Playing live is on hold at the moment. No. I can get into it when we’re doing it, but the thought of doing it is not my most favourite of activities. I like to write songs, and the way I look at it is it became the fashion in the sixties that the people who wrote them also performed them. But at heart, I’m more fascinated by the writing of the songs than performing.
Michael Jackson, the Gulf War, the other records. Isn’t it frustrating to not be able to record, if not release all these songs?
It’s really frustrating, but it’s only become frustrating to me recently. I started to write more and more, it’s a bit of an addiction, you get into it and you really really enjoy it. Of late I sort of looked back at some of the things I’ve written and thought, oh God it’s going to be a long time before they’ll be released, maybe someone will get the same idea and I’ll be perceived as an imitator. Maybe it’s not so good to be prolific.
Couldn’t you release them anyway?
Not really. We had an LP, that’s what happened to it, “Protest Songs”, which was… I did want to make a rough record, a record that was no big follow up to “Steve McQueen”… but the problem really is it takes me quite a while to demo the songs properly, and it takes me quite a while to record them in just the way I want. I can’t be the most spontaneous of people, you see. Also, I do tend to have an imagination that tends to the larger than life rather than the small statements, I like to write songs about Elvis Presley, or God, or write Christmas albums, as opposed to the little bunches of songs that singer-songwriters are supposed to do.
What will you release next?
It’ll either be “Let’s Change the World With Music” or “Knights in Armour”, I think that’s the most commercially viable. I do like the other… I like that, I like the kind of feel of it because it’s sort of, every song on it is to do with music. I kind of… I spent such a lot of time thinking about music that I started to write songs about music. In fact “The Sound of Crying” was part of this album, and now that that’s out I obviously can’t use it on a new album, but it was a key part of this new record. So I don’t know what to do. “Knights in Armour” is more a collection of love songs that are slightly historical, kind of strange love songs, I suppose.
What about your Michael Jackson project?
The Michael Jackson thing is, I got interested in the idea of doing a kind of portrait of him, cause I’m fascinated by him. I started to write songs last year, round about April of ’91, and very quickly I’d written a whole bunch of things. But then I figured there might be a slight problem being on Sony records. That didn’t deter me from doing it because I could always do that in another form. But I thought, after “Jordan”, where I’d written about Elvis, and having a song about Bruce Springsteen, I thought, I didn’t want to be a song-writing Albert Goldman. It’s actually quite sympathetic towards him, it’s not some kind of cruel joke, it’s just songs that were inspired by him. I started by trying to write some songs for him, and then they got slightly weirder.
How do you feel about people covering your songs?
I would love to see that happen, but I’ve never really pursued it properly. I do get asked to write things, but I haven’t even followed up on it. I would love it to happen, this year I’ve got to devote some time to it, and I haven’t given my publishers demo tapes of new songs. Otherwise you’re just waiting for people to cover the ones they like. I was even asked by someone to do something for Rod Stewart and I never got around to it.
Would you have prefered to have been born in a previous era?
I wonder, you see. I think if I’d been born in another era I wouldn’t have stood out in the crowd. I’m glad to be in a time where the kind of song-writing I like isn’t happening that much. Times change and that’s life, what can you do about it?
Do you think you should be discussed in terms of Rock’n’Roll, or is Porter, Gershwin, Webb, Sondheim more appropriate?
I would never presume to that. I think we are a modern group, it’s just that we don’t choose to go in the sort of direction most go in. I find rock groups really quite boring, but I don’t think… I suppose it’s in the tradition of those songwriters that you mentioned, but it would be presumptuous of me to ever put my songs in the same bracket. You’re entitled to do that, that’s perfectly true, and I’m not.
When are you going to get involved in musical theatre?
I’ve thought about it. Someone was saying to me, why don’t you do it, and I was saying, imagine the apprenticeship you’ve got to go through! It probably helps to start when you’re seventeen or eighteen. I’m thirty five and there’s a lot that I’d have to learn about the dramatic process, writing for characters. But I think anything that takes you out of yourself is to be encouraged. Most rock bands, they never really grow up, and the world of musicals is just a world of possibilities, it doesn’t have to be Lloyd Webber. It’s not that I don’t feel up to the struggle, but I don’t want to misdirect my energies. Maybe I am a rock writer, but just with an unusual angle. But every day I do think, maybe I should be writing for films or theatre. But you’ve got to make a living in the meantime as well.
Is it true you’re working with Spielberg on “Zorro the Fox”?
He bought the rights to the character. and to be really honest with you, I felt that I kind of defined the character very well in the songs, but I hadn’t set up any real story on it, I’d sort of drawn a portrait in it and some of the lyrics are moving in a strange way, and the music was quite energetic, but what I didn’t do was tell a full story. You end up writing a sort of Wagnerian opera. It pains me to think the hours I spent on that, and I still haven’t done one demo.
What role does the band play- frankly, what’s the point of having a band if it’s really a studio endeavour, and the songs and arrangements are the thing?
The role of the band is, I suppose, to flesh out my fantasies, really. Sometimes I demand that we be more of a rock group than we are, and sometimes I demand… I require that we be storytellers, especially on things from “Jordan”, we get into making a different sound world for each song, so “Michael” is a different sound world from the “Ice Maiden” or “Paris Smith”, and they’re really brilliant at sort of realizing it. They’re fans of music, I use this expression to draw a distinction between people who are just great players and people who can sort of stand back from the playing and judge it as a fan would. It’s easy to lose perspective when you’re working on something, it’s much more helpful when you’ve got somebody there who can say, hang on, this just doesn’t work for me. Neil is a great drummer, the best musician, but I would say that Martin and Wendy are better at judging things than the rest of us are, they know more quickly what’s working and what isn’t working. It’s great, you know when you see some bands and everybody wants to write a song, or the bass player has to get his songs on the record, we don’t have that, we’re more of a modern group.
What about Thomas Dolby?
Thomas, he’s a fabulous arranger, and most of the things he does, there’s very little that you want to change, but he’s very amenable to suggestions. There were songs on “Jordan” that I kind of got close to at home doing demos, and he would flesh them out in a better fashion, make them more musical, more exciting. But sometimes my demo arrangements weren’t very good, and he would try and do something different from them and if I didn’t like that he would take it in another direction. It’s very good when you’ve got someone with an ego that allows changes. It’s more of a collaboration. I love that, it’s very unselfish.
Did you choose the songs on “A Life of Surprises”?
Pretty much so. As a band we did, with our management. We kind of agreed largely on those songs that have to be there. I didn’t put on all my own personal favourite songs for two reasons- it would have made a slightly more sombre record, and also a lot of my favourites were on “Jordan”. I basically tried to make an LP that would work as an introduction, that’s really where this whole thing starts. We’re in the funny position of having made five albums and we’re making an introductory album. Our history is a strange one, I figure we’ve put out records that are kind of unknown, but they’re as good as anybody does these days.
What’s the best song you ever wrote?
I do like “One of the Broken”, off “Jordan”, I like When “Love Breaks Down”, “I Remember That”. Some of the ideas of “Swoon” I really like, it was just too wordy. I thought it was important to be really really different, and now I think it’s more important to be good, it’s a simple answer really. I was very very young when I wrote a lot of “Swoon”, I was eighteen. I didn’t know a lot of people who wrote songs, and I had nobody to sit down and criticize the songs with. And people who I knew liked them for their strangeness. I used to think, wouldn’t it be great to make songs like James Joyce, and mess around with the language and the grammar. I kind of grew out of that approach.
“Words are trains, for moving past what really has no name”…!
I still like that. I think it’s a good one, it’s excellent. As a writer you’re probably pretty close to the idea anyway. When you write things sometimes you discover your subject through the writing. You don’t sit down with the big idea and it falls out of you. I used to think, I can’t write things because I don’t have any good ideas. sometimes you sit down and ideas come to you, the metre of the line or the shape of the melody suggests things to you, you work within this tiny area and that focuses your idea. Sometimes I come up with good lines and they’re really great but I don’t feel like I can take credit for them, it’s forced itself upon you. I used to think, oh now, I can’t write things. and then you think, just make something up, if it’s bad, you can change it.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
Sometimes I do. Between records I sort of lose confidence, especially if I haven’t written a song in a while. Then I think about everything I was supposed to have written. It is the burden of the artist.
“Music’s a wild thing with mischief to prove”…!
Oh, God, you’re right. I wrote it quite recently, it’s the middle section of the song. It’s a song that I don’t often talk about, we talk about the Elvis songs or the spiritual songs, I’ve kind of forgotten about it. I never sang it anywhere other than when I was writing it. I kind of like that. This ties in with the “Let’s Change the World” idea. I’d forgotten that.
Are you married to Wendy? If not, who’s Paris?
Wendy would say, if I have a child, I’m going to call it, she’d go through every name under the sun, Dionysus, or Isis. She’d heard somebody named Paris, and she said that’s what she’d call the child. I don’t have any children. I wanted to write a kind of tender song to somebody saying, don’t make my mistakes. A lot of “Jordan” is about having your time again, and not making the mistakes of the past. I used to go out with Wendy, four years ago, but we no longer do. We’re best friends though. Some people presume that we’re still together.
Why did you refer to yourself as the “Fred Astaire of Words”?
My publisher likes to do that. I just did that as a big case, it was kind of like a fake concession, with me thinking about the Swoon period of my life, it’s kind of like a semi-arrogant thing to say, I couldn’t stop doing it.
Most of my music, it kind of misses the point, then I think, music’s just meant as an exercise of your imagination, music can be whatever the hell you want it be.
Do you think it’s strange you’re not better known in the US?
I wouldn’t say that it was strange. It’s most frustrating, sometimes. I don’t mind being unknown. So what, really. It’s just that when I talk to someone who doesn’t know that much about me, sometimes the questions I get are kind of, I don’t know where to start to unravel the lack of knowledge or preconceptions that people have. That sort of bothers me. I do wish we were more well known here. Some good sort of people, like the Gerswhins, I love the fact that it’s American music, and i would like America to know about my stuff. I’m a bit embarassed that after eight years I’m still a kind of new kid on the block.
Did you really meet Frank Sinatra?
Liner notes are a great opportunity to get really pompous and earnest. I could have put Pete Townsend, but I just thought, hey, you’ve got to have some illusions.
Why did you cover “He’ll have to Go”?
I don’t know much about it. I like the style, I like the economy of the writing, I like Jimmy Webb’s contribution to country music, in that the telling of stories, he was very modern and simultaneously very old-fashioned in his writing. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, I kind of think came out of some of that. I wish we’d done a proper version of that, it was just an afternoon folly, but I always loved that chord sequence to it.
Is there irony in “All the World Loves Lovers”?
Yes, there is. I tried to make the verses have all the complexity of the thought, it’s kind of very ambiguous, and then the choruses have to be quite simple. I love the ambiguity, that’s one of the things I’ve learned listening to Sondheim. That’s how people are, and I particularly like that lyric. They simply haven’t listened to the verses of it. It’s pretty clear in those verses that it’s the ultimate sort of bittersweet view of the subject. It’s as complex and as simple as that.